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Multimillion-dollar art collection, once promised to SAM, now up for auction at Christie’s

Edward Hopper, “Chop Suey,” oil on canvas, is the crown jewel from the Barney Ebsworth collection being auctioned off by Christie’s. (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth)

In 2007, Seattle-area art collector Barney A. Ebsworth publicly promised 65 main artworks to Seattle Art Museum — together with Edward Hopper’s iconic “Chop Suey.” However this week, Ebsworth’s prized art assortment goes up for auction at Christie’s. How did that occur?

One thing unusual is occurring at Seattle Art Museum — or, somewhat, not occurring.

Dozens of items from a personal art assortment, value lots of of tens of millions of dollars, once sure for the museum, are now headed to auction.

In 2007, Barney A. Ebsworth, a luxury-travel magnate and internationally recognized art collector, publicly promised 65 main artworks to Seattle Art Museum (SAM) — together with Edward Hopper’s “Chop Suey,” a 1929 oil portray of two ladies speaking intently in an upstairs New York restaurant.

“For me, giving to your local museum is the right thing to do,” Ebsworth stated to The Stranger at the time. That yr, Ebsworth and different native donors pledged an estimated $1 billion value of art to have fun three issues: SAM’s massive downtown enlargement, the Olympic Sculpture Park and SAM’s 75th anniversary. “We’re thrilled,” then-SAM director Mimi Gates advised The Seattle Occasions.

Quick-forward 11 years: Ebsworth died in April. This week, almost 100 works from his assortment, together with most — and even all — of the 65 promised to SAM, are up for sale in a two-day auction that ends Nov. 14. (SAM declined repeated requests to present an inventory of the unique 65 to examine towards the Christie’s catalog.)

Christie’s estimates the gathering’s worth at someplace between $261 million and $364 million, with main works by Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keeffe and others. A Christie’s spokesperson referred to as it “the most significant private collection of 20th-century American art ever to come to market.” Its crown jewel: Hopper’s “Chop Suey,” valued at $70 million-$100 million. To pump up the sale of the gathering, the auction home has taken Ebsworth’s art on a grand tour — the Paris Biennale, London, Hong Kong — to tempt the eyes and wallets of the world’s wealthiest art-collecting elite.

What occurred? How did such a momentous, extremely publicized bequest from Ebsworth’s internationally vaunted assortment slip out from beneath SAM’s nostril?

SAM doesn’t need to speak about it.

Present and former museum officers, in addition to museum trustees, both spoke in obscure appreciation of Ebsworth’s earlier donations or declined to remark.

Ebsworth’s five-page 2010 will provides few clues, stating solely that his property belongs to the Barney A. Ebsworth Dwelling Belief — dwelling trusts are usually not topic to public scrutiny — together with his sole baby, daughter Christiane Ebsworth Ladd, as its executor. She didn’t reply to requests for remark. Nor did Ebsworth’s widow and most up-to-date ex-spouse (he was married 4 occasions).

What we do know: As an alternative of going to SAM, accessible to the general public in perpetuity, the Ebsworth assortment will probably be divided up and bought to the very best bidders.

“It’s a tragedy for the city,” Seattle gallery proprietor and art vendor James Harris stated. “I was appalled by the news. These are major, iconic paintings. It’s hard to find things of that quality. I’m incredibly disappointed in SAM.”

“They’re such important works,” stated Jim Oliver, co-director of the famend Mary Boone Gallery in New York. Ebsworth’s assortment, he defined, was unusually targeted and punctiliously curated. “Younger collectors these days are like shotguns,” he stated. “They collect a whole bunch of stuff — almost more an investor mentality than connoisseurship.”

However Ebsworth’s Pollock and de Kooning, Oliver famous, aren’t simply any previous Pollock or de Kooning. They’re the great ones.

Oliver stated it was “unfortunate” that Ebsworth’s art assortment couldn’t stay collectively for public view — at, say, a museum like SAM. “When things go to auction, it’s like sending all the children to an orphanage.”

A museum-quality assortment

Ebsworth grew up in St. Louis, constructed his fortune within the journey business (Royal Cruise Strains, Clipper Cruise Strains) and was a big early investor in Construct-a-Bear Workshop. He moved to Seattle in 2003 — although he’d already joined SAM’s board in 2000, after the museum hosted “Twentieth Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection,” an exhibition organized by the Nationwide Gallery of Art.

Ebsworth’s most seen present to the museum got here in 2013: “Echo,” an eerie, white, 46-foot-tall sculpture of a Greek nymph’s head by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa that looms close to the doorway to the Olympic Sculpture Park.

In interviews, Ebsworth stated he discovered a ardour for art in 1956 whereas stationed with the Military in France, the place he often visited the Louvre. His old flame was the Previous Masters. However within the early 1970s, as he began constructing a critical art assortment, Ebsworth turned towards American modernists (together with Hopper and O’Keeffe) as a result of these have been works he might afford.

Ultimately, he amassed a marquee assortment and employed well-known native architect Jim Olson to construct a home in Hunts Level simply to showcase it. Ebsworth named his house “An American Place.” You’d go hoarse making an attempt to identify all of the canonical artists whose work held on its partitions.

“His collection had museum quality,” Oliver stated. “It hit all the right buttons. If a museum didn’t have American modernism and they got this collection, they wouldn’t need anything else.”

In 2007, the yr of his massive promise to SAM, Ebsworth informed ARTnews that he all the time meant for his assortment to keep collectively and go to a museum.

That yr, he additionally stated SAM’s new downtown footprint might lastly accommodate his art. “With the expansion, now there is space,” he stated to The Seattle Occasions — and added that with so few modernist masterpieces left available on the market, his assortment was extra worthwhile than ever.

“In effect,” he stated, “it’s not possible now to put that collection together at any price.”

By that point, Ebsworth had been actively concerned with museums throughout the nation, together with in Seattle, St. Louis, Honolulu, New York and Washington, D.C., as a board member and donor.

Typically, his presents had a showman’s aptitude: the mammoth “Echo,” for instance, or the traditional mummy of Amen-nestawy-nakht that Ebsworth purchased for the St. Louis Art Museum. “That was emblematic of Barney,” museum director Brent R. Benjamin stated. “He knew a mummy was a great way to attract children to an art museum.”

Ebsworth in contrast his personal assortment to youngsters in their very own proper. In a 2017 “oral history” with the Smithsonian, he advised a narrative about somebody suggesting he unload beneficial work to purchase extra. “I think that’s a little bit like having 12 kids and saying you’re only going to have 12 kids,” Ebsworth advised the Smithsonian, “and your wife gets pregnant again, and you take little Charlie behind the barn and shoot him. I don’t think I’m going to [laughs] be able to do that.”

In that very same interview, virtually precisely a yr earlier than he died, Ebsworth was cagey about the way forward for his art assortment. “That has never been announced,” he stated, contradicting a number of public statements he’d made through the years.

So what occurred between Ebsworth’s huge promise of 2007 and 2017, when it seemed like he was having reservations?

No one needs to say.

Interviews with SAM director Kimerly Rorschach and board president Stewart Landefeld (a companion at Perkins Coie regulation agency, which has represented Ebsworth’s daughter and his dwelling belief, the authorized umbrella overlaying all his property) stored looping again to speaking factors.

Rorschach referred all questions again to a press release she issued simply after Ebsworth’s demise: “We are forever grateful for the generous support he bestowed upon SAM.” SAM did obtain one thing from Ebsworth’s property — 4 “partial gifts,” given throughout his lifetime, have been absolutely entered into the museum’s assortment after his demise. Landefeld repeatedly deflected sure/no questions concerning the art and its destiny with generalized hallelujahs: “Barney was an all-star trustee.”

Former SAM director Gates didn’t reply to requests for remark. Patricia Junker, SAM’s curator of American art between 2004 and 2018, declined to remark. A lot of the museum’s trustees both declined to remark, didn’t reply to requests for remark, or referred questions again to Rorschach, who referred to her assertion and board president Landefeld, who referred again to Rorschach.

Among the many questions SAM wouldn’t reply: When, precisely did the museum realize it wouldn’t be receiving Ebsworth’s assortment? (The Christie’s spokesperson stated concrete inner conversations concerning the sale started over the summer time, after Ebsworth’s dying.)

Probably the most candid assertion concerning the destiny of Ebsworth’s assortment got here from SAM board member Hwa Park. “Yes, we had conversations, but behind closed doors,” she stated. “What happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors.”

For what it’s value, SAM receives subsidies from the Metropolis of Seattle, together with the backing of $60 million in bonds the museum issued to finance its downtown enlargement, $19 million in metropolis funds slated to assist pay for SAM’s enlargement of the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park and at least $132,000 per yr over the previous three years from the town’s Workplace of Arts & Tradition.

That gained’t purchase the town a Hopper. However it ought to be value at least a number of solutions.

‘Extremely unfortunate’

James Burns, chair of the curators committee at the American Alliance of Museums, stated he’s seen promised presents fall via throughout his profession, however by no means at this public scale.

“This kind of thing is extremely unfortunate,” he stated. “Museums tend to not be as diligent as they might in legally documenting promised gifts. This has long been a problem in the profession.”

Burns distilled the thriller behind Ebsworth’s assortment, and SAM’s reluctance to speak about it, down to 4 doubtless explanations:

Maybe SAM failed to wrangle Ebsworth’s promise in writing. Or perhaps Ebsworth signed a promise however had a falling-out with the museum and altered his thoughts. Alternatively, SAM and Ebsworth might have quietly determined the museum would swap the 65 artworks for a minimize of their sale.

Or SAM may need efficiently wrangled a promise in writing, however Ebsworth (or his heirs) merely determined to promote the art as a result of the household wanted the cash — and it will be dangerous PR for a museum to sue a bereaved household for artworks a rich patriarch had promised when he was alive.

“They have to think about how it’s going to look to all the other Barney Ebsworths out there,” stated Daniel Weiner, co-chair of the art regulation group  at New York-based agency Hughes, Hubbard & Reed. “They’re going to decide up the paper and skim ‘Museum sues Ebsworth daughter’ after which assume: ‘Gee, I’m glad I’m not giving them my paintings.’ “

Burns stated we might by no means find out how or why Ebsworth’s art modified course from SAM to the auction block. “For all we know,” he stated, “this could be breaking his heart, but he had to monetize the collection.” (Ebsworth had used his assortment for monetary leverage throughout his life — in 1993, for instance, Ebsworth provided six artworks, together with “Chop Suey” and a Warhol, as collateral in a debt to banking big Citicorp.)

“But it’s extremely odd that with that much passion for collecting, he would not find one of the institutions he clearly loved to donate it to,” Burns added. “That’s curious.”

Virginia Wright — a longtime Seattle philanthropist, art collector and SAM trustee — took a sanguine angle about Seattle’s loss to Christie’s.

“Well, boo hoo, that’s what happens,” she stated. “There was an assumption that a lot of those paintings would come to the museum, notably the Hopper. So it’s disappointing. If we know a great, major Hopper is coming, it has an influence on other collectors. It might show them that the museum is extra strong in midcentury modern art and might influence them to buy in that area.”

However, she concluded, “you win some, you lose some.”

As for her personal art, Wright hasn’t left any wiggle room. “In my case, promised gifts have been put into my will,” she stated. “So there’s no going back on those.”